During a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, pays the court an unexpected visit. He challenges the group’s leader or any other brave representative to a game. The Green Knight says that he will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year to receive a blow in return.
Stunned, Arthur hesitates to respond, but when the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. As soon as Arthur grips the Green Knight’s axe, Sir Gawain leaps up and asks to take the challenge himself. He takes hold of the axe and, in one deadly blow, cuts off the knight’s head. To the amazement of the court, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. Before riding away, the head reiterates the terms of the pact, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. After the Green Knight leaves, the company goes back to its festival, but Gawain is uneasy.
Time passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain prepares to leave Camelot and find the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales, traveling through the wilderness of northwest Britain. Gawain encounters all sorts of beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, he prays to find a place to hear Mass, then looks up to see a castle shimmering in the distance. The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For sport, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) strikes a deal with Gawain: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, and when he returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind at the castle. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.
The first day, the lord hunts a herd of does, while Gawain sleeps late in his bedchambers. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife sneaks into Gawain’s chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she steals one kiss from him. That evening, when the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, Gawain kisses him, since he has won one kiss from the lady. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. The lady again enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. That evening Gawain gives the host the two kisses in exchange for the boar’s head.
The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She also asks him for a love token, such as a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her, until the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is no ordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims, but possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Intrigued, Gawain accepts the cloth, but when it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives the three kisses but does not mention the lady’s green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won that day, and they all go to bed happy, but weighed down with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.
New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain dons his armor, including the girdle, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain decides to give up the quest. Gawain refuses, determined to meet his fate head-on. Eventually, he comes to a kind of crevice in a rock, visible through the tall grasses. He hears the whirring of a grindstone, confirming his suspicion that this strange cavern is in fact the Green Chapel. Gawain calls out, and the Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight, who proceeds to feign two blows. On the third feint, the Green Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, barely drawing blood. Angered, Gawain shouts that their contract has been met, but the Green Knight merely laughs.
The Green Knight reveals his name, Bertilak, and explains that he is the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. Because Gawain did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak drew blood on his third blow. Nevertheless, Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight, without equal in all the land. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt and King Arthur’s half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his original errand and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Relieved to be alive but extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth, Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court, where all the knights join Gawain, wearing girdles on their arms to show their support.
- The Journey to the Self: Stages of Trauma and Initiation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By: Dr. Danielle Gurevitch,
The ending in Sir Gawain is the climax of the hero’s drama over a full annual cycle, in which he encounters a variety of strange characters, some of whom wish to harm him and others to help him. I claim that the plot presents an ordered system of cultural symbols and clear archetypal substructures by means of which the anonymous author describes the trials and tribulations of the adolescent boy. I will employ for this purpose Jungian psychologist Esther Harding’s model that appears in her book The I and the Not-I. I claim that the plot demonstrates how an individual progresses from a self-focused ego to a mature, responsible existence in harmony with both nature and culture.
The Fathers the Mothers and the Son:
On a snowy, stormy day, at sunrise, having received the gift of the green girdle from his host’s wife, Gawain sets out with a heavy heart for his encounter in the Green Chapel with the Green Knight. The guide that the lord of the castle has placed at his disposal accompanies him a good part of the way until the two begin to approach the chapel, where the guide informs him that he will on no account go one step further. His companion advises “goude Sir Gawayn” (line 2118) that if he values his life he should escape while he still has the chance, and promises to reveal the flight to no one. Gawain, however, is determined to honor his undertaking and reassures the guide that he places his trust in God and has no intention of withdrawing. Left alone, Gawain loudly informs his menacing opponent that he has arrived, as promised, to play his part in the
beheading game. On hearing the call, the Green Knight emerges from the mountains wielding his terrifying axe.
The ending in Sir Gawain is the climax of the hero’s drama over a full annual cycle, in which he encounters a variety of strange characters, some of whom wish to harm him and others to help him. This article reviews the roles of the three types of men and
three types of women who accompany the knight on his exhausting journey. I claim that the plot presents an ordered system of cultural symbols and clear archetypal substructures by means of which the anonymous author describes the trials and tribulations of the adolescent boy. I will employ for this purpose Jungian psychologist Esther Harding’s model that appears in her book The I and the Not-I (1993). Using this model, I will show that the plot sequence should be read as a rich episodic mosaic, describing a series of emotionally loaded relationships between father and son, and
mother and son. While the text describes the quest of a Knight of the Round Table at the outset of his life journey, the meta-text describes the stages of emotional maturity that an adolescent undergoes, moving from a lack of awareness and total dependence (childhood) towards autonomy and awareness (adulthood). During this process, the hero consolidates his individual, independent identity. I claim that the plot demonstrates how an individual progresses from a self-focused ego to a mature, responsible existence in harmony with both nature and society. The hero’s completion of the adventure in the best possible manner reflects the successful completion of the process – a physical and mental progression that integrates outside and inside, nature and culture.
Beheading as a metaphor:
In his book Symbolic Stories (1988), literary researcher Derek Brewer identifies the character of the Green Knight as the image of the father and that of young Gawain as the image of the son. Brewer interprets the Green Knight’s aggression and his terrifying green form as a visual manifestation of the son’s anxious mental state in the oedipal stage and of his fear ofcastration by the father.1 The source of the fear that grips the “son” is the understanding that the two face “father” (sir Bertilac/the green knight) can
harm him irreparably (behead him) while he cannot hurt the omnipotent “father” (lines 2282-3). There is concrete evidence: even after being beheaded by the axe’s blow, the “father” is able to replace his severed head. This reading of the beheading as a metaphor for mental tension emanating from a crisis in the father-son relationship is reinforced in a French poem from the end of the 12th century (about one hundred and fifty years before Sir Gawain) – “Le Livre de Caradoc” – appearing in a collection Conte du Graal, la Continuation Gauvain (Szkilnik, 1992). “TheBeheading Game” in the poem ends with the secret exposed and the identity of the mysterious “beheader” revealed as the sorcerer Eliavres. After fulfilling the task, the “beheader” secretly tells the contestant,
Caradoc Briebras, a young knight only recently knighted by King Arthur, that he initiated the game so as to create a suitable opportunity to reveal to Caradoc
that he is his biological father. ( The story of the beheading has an even earlier version. The foundations of the story are borrowed from an ancient Irish tale that appears in the Ulster Cycle from about the eighth century. In the eleventh century the story had several popular Irish versions; one of the more familiar tales, known as the Briccriu’s Feast, appears in the collection Strachan, John and O’Keefe, J. G. (eds.), Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow). The place of Sir Gawain in the original story is taken by the national hero, the greatest of Irish fighters, Cúchulainn, who was the only person to volunteer to carry out the task planned and executed by the sorcerer Cú Roi.
The test set by the sorcerer allowed Cúchulainn to obtain the Champion Portion’s prize given to the victor, that is to say, to receive the choicest piece of meat from the mouth-watering dish (curadhmhir) in addition, of course, to fame and glory.
In the Irish version, the esteemed sorcerer Cú Roi has no familial connection to the hero. The anonymous poet of Sir Gawain mentions twice that his story is based on an ancient
source that he heard about in books: The bok as I herde say (line 690), and another time in the line that concludes the text: The Brutus bokes therof beres wyttensesse (line 2253). The influence he alludes to is unclear; it is certainly possible that there were other versions of this story. A new structural frame was assembled on the ancient foundation that matched the date of the writing and the taste of the specific target audience). Read more here…
The motto is inscribed, as hony soyt qui mal pence, at the end of the text in the sole surviving manuscript in the British Library, albeit in a later hand.
In the poem, a girdle, very similar in its erotic undertones to the garter, plays a prominent role. A rough equivalent of the Order’s motto has been identified in Gawain’s exclamation corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse boþe (“cursed be both cowardice and coveting”, v. 2374). While the author of that poem remains disputed, there seems to be a connection between two of the top candidates and the Order of the Garter, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, and Enguerrand de Coucy, seventh Sire de Coucy. De Coucy was married to King Edward III’s daughter, Isabella, and was given admittance to the Order of the Garter on their wedding day.”
Please also look at : The Golden Bough:
The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (retitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in its second edition) is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. The Golden Bough was first published in two volumes in 1890; in three volumes in 1900; and in twelve volumes in the third edition, published 1906–15. It has also been published in several different one-volume abridgments. The influence of The Golden Bough on contemporary European literature and thought was substantial.